The below text is featured in the UWCHR 2022-2023 Annual Report.
Written by Phil Neff
Over the past five years, the Washington state legislature has passed a landmark series of laws aimed at safeguarding immigrant rights, including the Courts Open to All Act (2019), Keep Washington Working (2020), HB 1090 (2021), and HB 1470 (2023). The result of long-term leadership by immigrant community advocates, these new laws have placed Washington state at the forefront of national efforts to protect immigrant rights through state and local initiatives, despite failures at the federal level. In keeping with UWCHR’s own legislative mandate, in 2020 we launched the Immigrant Rights Observatory to monitor and ensure the successful implementation and enforcement of these laws across our state. In August 2021, we published our first report, “Protecting Immigrant Rights: Is Washington’s Law Working?”, identifying areas of progress as well as concern.
In partnership with grassroots organizations and advocacy groups, the UWCHR has continued to track progress of and compliance with these laws. UWCHR student researchers filed dozens of public records requests to law enforcement and government agencies across the state, seeking updated department policies and documents that might reveal potentially illegal practices involving communication and collaboration with ICE and Border Patrol.
When UWCHR researchers find evidence of activities that violate the law, our team alerts partners including the ACLU of Washington, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and the Washington Defender Association. These groups engage in targeted outreach to warn local agencies that their policies or practices are in violation of the law. In many cases, this has resulted in positive change for immigrant rights, including stricter adherence to policies restricting the collection of citizenship and other information by local jails, and the cancellation of a Spokane County detention agreement with Border Patrol in January 2023. In other cases, agencies have declined to respond, reflecting the need for stronger incentives for compliance with immigrant rights legislation.
This past year, the UWCHR has expanded partnerships with groups elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. In Oregon, which in 2021 passed its own landmark immigrant rights legislation, the Sanctuary Promise Act, UWCHR student researchers are working with the Rural Organizing Project to analyze local law enforcement policies for compliance with the law.
Our work is rarely single-issue focused. Since the recent waves of bans and limitations put on people’s access to reproductive health care, the UWCHR has taken what we’ve learned from monitoring state immigrant rights sanctuary laws and applied it to the threats to reproductive rights in our new report, “Who’s Watching Washington?: Dangers of Automated License Plate Readers to Immigrant and Reproductive Rights in Washington State.” The report surveys law enforcement agencies across Washington state on their use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs), including practices around data collection and retention, as well as sharing of collected data with entities such as private data brokers and federal law enforcement agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
Back in the Washington legislature, HB 1470 mandates improved conditions in private detention centers, including the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, addressing areas of longstanding concern such as food and sanitation, the use of solitary confinement, and communications and visitation rights. The law also tasks the state’s Department of Health with significant oversight responsibilities, requiring it to conduct unannounced inspections of the facility and respond to reported infractions. Significantly, HB 1470 affords detained people a private right of action, allowing them to sue for damages against private prison operators—in this case, GEO Group—if violations occur, and it grants state authorities the ability to issue civil penalties as well.
HB 1470’s oversight and accountability provisions, until now absent from Washington’s immigrant rights legislation, may prove pivotal in the years ahead. UWCHR looks forward to continuing its research on human rights conditions within the Northwest Detention Center, and to working with partner organizations to spread awareness of violations and support efforts at accountability. Our experience with collaborative KWW monitoring efforts shows that even in cases where legislation lacks “teeth,” dedicated research and advocacy efforts can help hold government officials to the requirements of our laws. We expect that the significantly stronger tools provided in HB 1470 will permit further progress toward realizing our shared goal of a state where all people’s rights are respected.